Queensland's biggest mining proposal has stalled after breakdowns in native title talks. Preston Resources Ltd said it wanted to take talks on the $750 million nickel and cobalt mine to arbitration and has walked away from direct negotiations with Aboriginal claimants.
Aboriginal groups said yesterday they were shocked by the decision and believed they had been close to an agreement over the mine at Marlborough, 60km north of Rockhampton.
Opposition Leader Rob Borbidge said it showed the State Government's native title legislation had failed.
The Barada Barna, Kabalbarra, Yetimaria and Darumbai people had been the first to have their claims recognised under the state's amended Native Title Act.
Their claims cover half of the mine's proven nickel reserves, estimated at 52 million tonnes. Preston managing director Adrian Griffin rejected claims of financial risks over the mine and said native title was the only thing standing in the way of the project, which had a life of between 50 and 100 years.
Speaking from London, Mr Griffin said work would start before next wet season if the matter could be resolved. He said the company was happy to reach a settlement with claimants at any time. But Preston believed the matter had to go to arbitration to ensure a definite time frame for an outcome.
Analysts said yesterday that arbitration could take up to six months and further litigation could stall the project for years.
Barada Barna spokesman Norman Brown said there had been intensive negotiations with Preston for several months. Mr Brown said he thought they were finding agreement when negotiations ended abruptly.
"Now we find the rug pulled out from under us by the mining company calling for arbitration and we have to talk through lawyers," Mr Brown said. "We did have a good relationship with Preston Resources people, but they seem to have departed from the track in recent weeks."
Darumbai spokesman Doug Hatfield said Aboriginal groups had gone to "tremendous lengths" to get to the negotiating table.
"People in central Queensland have seen the Marlborough nickel project as being good not only for indigenous people of the region, but also for development in the region generally," Mr Hatfield said.
The mine could supply 3% of the world's nickel and 4% of cobalt. It would create 200 direct jobs, 800 indirect and another 1000 during construction.
Mr Borbidge said the stand-off highlighted the failure in the State Government's native title legislation. The legislation is back in State Parliament after the Commonwealth found it required more than 200 amendments.
Mr Borbidge said it was unforgivable Premier Peter Beattie did not give priority to amendments to the "botched" legislation at the last parliamentary sitting. "The freeze on mining approvals cannot begin to thaw until this native title madness is sorted out," he said.
A spokesman for State Development Minister Jim Elder said there was a process to be followed in negotiations and that process was being followed in the Marlborough case.